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Friday 11 March 2022

[Friday Faction] Game Wizards

Jon Peterson begins his latest book, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons at exactly the point where his previous book, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, left off—that history repeats itself. The Elusive Shift explored the debate as to what a roleplaying game is and what roleplaying is, and not only how that debate was settled, but also how it has been repeated by successive generations of gamers since the first decade or so that we have had roleplaying as a hobby. In Game Wizards, Peterson examines the creation of Dungeons & Dragons and the first decade or so of how it became the foundation of the business that was TSR and how the feud between the game’s co-creators, E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, would ultimately lead to their ousting from TSR, and following a debt crisis, the company’s takeover by Lorraine Williams. This was not a dissimilar pattern that Charles S. Roberts had followed in his founding of the board wargaming company, Avalon Hill, and its subsequent sale to a creditor a decade before the founding of TSR. Neither Roberts, and certainly not Gygax and Arneson set out to make a great deal of money, but in the case of Gygax and TSR, as much as they were unprepared for it, they did. Dungeons & Dragons would become a cultural phenomenon and long after the death of its co-creators, in the hands of Wizards of the Coast, become a highly profitable intellectual property. Of course, the story of how Gygax and Arneson created Dungeons & Dragons has been told many times, but in that telling the story has become mythologised and what really happened coloured by the personalities and the feuds between them. Peterson goes back to the source documents—letters, agreements, share evaluations, and even court depositions—to get a first-hand, as it happened account and thus cast Legend Lore on the first decade of TSR.

Also published by The MIT Press, Game Wizards is not a book about the evolution of Dungeons & Dragons—the author’s Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games is a better book for that—but it is where this book starts. Before that, it recounts how Gary Gygax and Don Kaye form Tactical Studies Rules to self-publish games, with Brian Blume providing capital and becoming an equal partner with the death of Kaye, and then Gygax develops Arneson’s concepts with his own and creates Dungeons & Dragons. The key document and really the starting point for the book, out of which would stem the feud between Gygax and Arneson over who created what and how much was owed to whom, is the copyright and royalties agreement they signed in early 1974. Like Gygax and Arneson, and eventually their lawyers, Game Wizards returns to this document as well as the issue of who owns what shares in TSR again and again in its pages.

Once TSR is founded, Peterson rolls through its history year-by-year, from 1974 until 1985, charting its rise and fortunes. At the end of each year he lists various indicators, such as revenue, number of employees, stock evaluation, and Gen Con versus origin attendance figures—the later being a particular bone of contention with Gygax. Listed here also are the sales rankings as presented by Howard Barasch of SPI in comparison with both SPI and Avalon Hill, tracking how the company went from ‘Other’ to first place, and then never looked back. There are small moments of humour here as well, such as ‘Players Eliminated: Heritage’, referring to the miniatures and games company that was an early rival for TSR. These chapters also track the relationship between Arneson and Gygax as it goes from friendly to standoffish into outright adversarial with Gygax having TSR’s lawyers altering how Arneson can be referred to on projects from other publishers and Arneson even accepting the H.G. Wells Award for ‘All Time Best Role Playing Rules’ at the Origins convention in 1978 when it was clearly meant for Dungeons & Dragons and its publisher, TSR, Inc. Once the feud become litigious—and it does very quickly, Game Wizards brings in numerous court documents and begins to chart the effect of the litigation of both the case between Arneson and TSR (Gygax), and all too often, other employees at TSR. The year-by-year telling of the history, together with the figures at the end of each year, gives the story a game like feel, and that, together with the back and forth between Gygax and Arneson reads like a very personal game of Diplomacy, almost played out across the whole of the hobby, culminating in the infamous ‘The Ambush at Sherdian Springs’ in 1985.

Peterson makes the point that the infamous disappearance of James Dallas Egbert III and its widespread publicity—often at the hands of the private investigator, William Dear, would give Dungeons & Dragons and thus both TSR and Gygax press coverage like never before. It would fuel increased interest in the game and lead to a massive boost in sales. The ensuring Moral Panic surrounding the controversy of supposed Satanism in Dungeons & Dragons would do the same. The resulting sales would lead to the rapid expansion of TSR, not just in terms of turnover, but also growth, staff and corporate acquisition, and ambition. The company might have weathered the increase in the number of staff from less than thirty to several hundred, the purchase of Greenfield Needlewomen, and Gygax’s excursion to Hollywood on their own, but all together? It is clear in Game Wizards that TSR was ill-equipped to manage that number of people, and the nepotism which run rampant did not help. Of course, in its early days, members of both the Blume and the Gygax families were employed out of necessity, but in the early eighties, the Blumes employed their in-laws too, often to disastrous effect and with no comeback. Purchases like that of Greenfield Needlewomen, would amount to nothing, and although the fondly remembered Dungeons &  Dragons Cartoon would result from Gygax’s time in Hollywood, little else did. Meanwhile, the raising of wrecks from Lake Geneva and the sponsorship of the US Winter Olympics team were simply wasted money. Together though, it meant that TSR and its management, led by Gygax and the Blumes were ill prepared to react when the downturn in the economy in the early eighties hit…

Throughout, there are fascinating asides and missed opportunities. For example, the combination of TSR deciding to step out of the miniatures field and the proposed purchase of Games Workshop—the early distributor of Dungeons & Dragons in the United Kingdom before the establishment of TSR UK—by TSR, never coming to pass, would mean that the British company would be free to pursue its own path. If it had happened, the history of the British hobby would have been very different, there would probably have been no Warhammer or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and probably a much more polarised hobby in the United Kingdom as a result. There are indications too of just how small roleplaying companies were during this period, certainly in comparison to TSR, which is often something that we forget, enclosed as we were back then (and still are to an extent) in the self-contained bubble of the hobby.

Ultimately, what we have in Game Wizards is a clash of personalities unwilling to concede to each other. Gygax wants to protect what he has built and provide for his family, but cannot balance his desire to simply write and create against the desire to maintain control of a business that he co-founded but was ill-suited to run. His brilliance lay in proselytising Dungeons & Dragons and bringing people together just as he did in the early days of TSR—he was a facilitator, not necessarily a businessman. Arneson wants to be recognised and paid his dues, and though ultimately he would be, in Game Wizards he is often shown as his own worst enemy. A font of creative ideas who did not respond well to either editing or criticism, and who comes across as petulant and a poor team player. Whereas Gygax’s posturing and protectionism, which would often drive much of both the hobby and the industry to side with the insecure Arneson, feels petty and vindictive. Similarly his feuds with other creatives and even with the Origins convention over which was bigger—Origins or Gen Con, possess a pettiness which has been lost in the retelling of his legend. If both Arneson and Gygax are far from perfect, they are not the villains of the piece. The Blumes—Kevin and Brian—fill that role, especially with the extent of the nepotism that saw them employ their extended family and grant them often ridiculous privileges. The reputation of the Blume brothers has long suffered in the telling of the history of TSR, and despite their seeding the company with start-up capital back in 1974, Game Wizards does them no favours.

Surprisingly, the biggest villain of all in the history of TSR, is revealed in Game Wizards to be anything but that! The reputation of Lorraine Williams, admittedly never a gamer, has perhaps been poorer than that of the Blume Brothers. Here she steps in at the last minute as the saviour of TSR from bankruptcy, working with the Blumes to oust Gygax lest he remain in control and unfortunately inflict more damage upon the company.

Throughout, Peterson draws from numerous documents and sources, including fanzines, convention programmes, news articles, and court documents and financial reports. This often gives the telling an impersonal feel, which histories with more personal recollections would obviously lack, but he counters this with numerous quotations from letters between Gygax and Arneson, and then Gygax and Arneson with others. This gives Game Wizards its personal touch and immediacy whilst at the same avoiding the issues that might arise through recollection and adherence to any orthodoxy or mythology attached to its subject matter.

Game Wizards ends in 1985, covering just the first twelve years of TSR’s history. It would have another twelve before being bought out by Wizards of the Coast in 1997. These years—and those after—are only treated briefly in Game Wizards and even though the author’s aim is tell the story of the relationship between Arneson and Gygax and the first twelve years of TSR, the book feels incomplete because of it. Fortunately, Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs will cover this period. Like the earlier The Elusive Shift, it would have been nice to have included some thumbnail bibliographies of the men and women whose story is told in Game Wizards. Without them, this is very much a book for those already knowledgeable about the leading figures of the hobby in its early days and what they did.

Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons is a fascinating read and anyone with an interest in the history of roleplaying should read it. The reader will come away with the impression that the original and premier roleplaying game still today, was created by two imperfect men, and whether because of their foibles, or in spite of them, their influence is still felt today. With Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, Jon Peterson has slain the mythology and the orthodoxy by going back to source to give us a clearer, almost Shakepearian history of E. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and TSR, Inc. than we were aware of.

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